Hurricane Maria (2017) vs. Hurricane Georges (1998)

Besides Hurricane Maria, only one other category 5 hurricane made landfall in Puerto Rico in over 150 years – the San Felipe Segundo that hit the island in 1928. In more recent history, Hurricane Georges, a category 3 storm, hit the island in 1998 causing significant destruction. In this Part 1 of our series on Puerto Rico, we compare the impact of Maria to the impact of Georges, the most destructive hurricane prior to Maria in recent history. We found that Hurricane Maria had a more destructive impact on Puerto Rico than Hurricane Georges because (1) Maria had stronger winds and more significant flooding and (2) damage was exacerbated by pre-existing challenges.

Georges versus Maria

On September 21, 1998, Georges struck the island as a Category 3 storm with winds near 100 knots and torrential rainfall dumping around 25 inches of rain.  About 19 years later, on September 20, 2017, Maria hit the island as a category 5 hurricane with winds near 140 knots and up to 38 inches of rainfall. 

Maria’s cost is almost 20 times that of Georges.  It was estimated that Hurricane Georges did about $5 billion in damage in Puerto Rico, while Maria’s damage is estimated to be about $94 billion, making Maria the costliest hurricane to make landfall on the island. The estimated damage from Maria is far costlier that from Georges because the impact has proven to be more severe and prolonged. Furthermore, the storm has exacerbated the issues Puerto Rico was facing prior to Maria, including the distressed condition of the island’s infrastructure.  Puerto Rico’s electricity grid is a prime example of how the pre-Maria conditions and extensive damage have led to a more prolonged suffering.  After Hurricane Georges the island’s electricity was restored within a few weeks, while three months after Maria, electricity was restored to only 65% of the island.

Maria damaged about ten times as many homes as Georges.  One of the most significant impacts of Hurricane Maria was the damage to infrastructure – according to FEMA, as of May 11, 2018 over 725,000 homes were damaged, while Georges impacted about a tenth of that (approximately 73,000 homes).  The actual damage to housing could be much more than these initial estimates. As of April, over one million households applied for FEMA’s individual assistance due to damage from Maria.  It is estimated that of the $94 billion in damages, $31 billion (or 33%) is related to damaged housing stock. 

Maria’s Impact to Economic Activity Index is five times greater than Georges. The Government Development Bank of Puerto Rico monitors economic progress using the Economic Activity Index (EAI), an index that summarizes the behavior of four major economic indicators: total non-farm payroll employment, cement sales, gasoline consumption, and electric power generation. 

Immediately following hurricane Georges, the EAI decreased by 3 percent and then quickly rebounded in 1999.  Before Hurricane Maria, the EAI had been steadily decreasing for about a decade. After hurricane Maria, the EAI index dropped an additional 17 percent. As of December 2017, the EAI increased slightly but it has still not returned to pre-storm levels. 

Targeted Recovery Necessary for Maria

The destruction and recovery data confirm Maria’s unprecedented effect on Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and economy. Considering such significant damage and less than ideal pre-storm conditions, recovery strategies and spending should target the most vulnerable populations.